Third Sunday of Advent: The Lord Is With You

Today is the Third Sunday of the Season of Advent. 

For those of you who might not be all that up on your church-y stuff, Advent is a historic season within the Church where those of us who call ourselves Christians actually anticipate the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.  

I get it.  We're anticipating something that happened a long time ago, which seems like a paradox or at the very least kind of weird.  

But this is what Christians do, we long for the arrival of Jesus in a spiritual sense of course, but I could also argue that we do so in an emotional sense as well.  

I mean who doesn't want the world to be a better place, am I right?

So we unashamedly long for a better world, and we long for the presence of the Christ, who comes to us just when it seems as though there isn't any hope... when it seems as though it's darker than it's ever been. 

And on this particular day of Advent, we declare that we anticipate the joy we will feel one day when the world changes when hope is realized, when the kingdom of God is nearer, even when we also acknowledge that the world isn't what it should be.  

Because it's all too evident that the world isn't as it should be.  And it's also all too evident that most of us struggle with anticipating in joy right about now.  We've had our bubble burst more than a few times over the past many months. 

Playwright Tracey Letts once wrote: 

"Thank God we can't know the future, or we'd never get out of bed." 

Even though we hate to admit it, many of us are living in fear.  We fear that God is not among us---that the enemies of good are winning.  We fear insignificance, political defeat, the interruption of our status quo.  

We also fear that God will interrupt the safety of our fears with something new--that we'll have to move, or do things differently, or evaluate our own junk for a change, and that sounds more difficult than just about anything.  

Today's reading comes to us from an ancient Hebrew prophet named Zephaniah.  We don't read his prophecies all that much, only around this time of year when we're talking about anticipating the Messiah, a better world, and the like. 

You see, Zephaniah was writing to a bunch of people who were going through their own struggles with fear, and he had a word of hope for them after all was said and done.  

Let me say something about true prophets.  True prophets sing God's song and sometimes interrupt the program with a change of tune.  But you always know that it's God's song. 

And the most important thing that Zephaniah declared to the people who were listening to his prophecies was simply this:  "Do not fear... the Lord is with you." He wanted the people to know that what 

Here's what we're going to focus on today throughout this sermon, and it's the one thing that I want you to hang on to if you forget everything else: 

OUR PUREST EXPRESSION OF JOY ARRIVES WHEN WE REALIZE THAT GOD IS WITH US. 

4 Sing, Daughter Zion;

    shout aloud, Israel!

Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,

    Daughter Jerusalem!

15 The Lord has taken away your punishment,

    he has turned back your enemy.

The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;

    never again will you fear any harm.

16 On that day

    they will say to Jerusalem,

“Do not fear, Zion;

    do not let your hands hang limp.

17 The Lord your God is with you,

    the Mighty Warrior who saves.

He will take great delight in you;

    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,

    but will rejoice over you with singing.”

18 “I will remove from you

    all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,

    which is a burden and reproach for you.

19 At that time I will deal

    with all who oppressed you.

I will rescue the lame;

    I will gather the exiles.

I will give them praise and honor

    in every land where they have suffered shame.

20 At that time I will gather you;

    at that time I will bring you home.

I will give you honor and praise

    among all the peoples of the earth

when I restore your fortunes[a]

    before your very eyes,”

says the Lord.

Let me say a little bit about the book of Zephaniah and the prophet himself so we can understand a bit more about what he's writing, to whom he's writing, and why he's writing it.  

To begin, Zephaniah was prophesying and preaching in the 7th century around 640-609 BCE.  This was before the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and had taken the majority of the Jews to live in exile in Babylon. 

Interestingly, the tradition within which this particular passage today lies is what is known as the "song tradition of women" in Hebrew literature.  There's a long line of women in the Bible who sing songs just like this in times of celebration, or in anticipation of what God is about to do.  

Zephaniah's name means "YHWH is concealed" or "YHWH lies in wait."  Prophets often took on names that spoke to their central message.  In this case, Zephaniah's message has to do with the fact that God's presence is with us---even when it's difficult to see it clearly.  

Some scholars believe that Zephaniah was the grandson of Hezekiah--that he came from royal lineage, but then rejected his wealth, prestige and the like to deliver a word from the Lord to rulers and religious leaders who abused their position and led the people of Israel astray.  

For most of the book, the prophet offers up what is essentially a dire prophecy about the possible future the Hebrew people will face if they don't turn things around. 

But then in this passage, he shifts gears and begins to paint a picture of a world that is permeated with God's presence.  There's this verse: 

15 The Lord has taken away your punishment,

    he has turned back your enemy.

The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;

    never again will you fear any harm.

And this one, too: 

7 The Lord your God is with you,

    the Mighty Warrior who saves.

He will take great delight in you;

    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,

    but will rejoice over you with singing.”

This prophecy is offered up within the context of fear, strife, war, shame and degradation that came with the Babylonian exile, the destruction of Jerusalem, and worst of all, the destruction of the Temple.  

Think about it for a moment---for the Hebrew people the Temple was a sign and symbol of God's presence.  The Divine Presence never left the Holy of Holies within the Temple, according to their beliefs.  

So when the Temple is destroyed the question would naturally come, "So where is God?" or "Why has God abandoned us?" 

The prophet here offers a different way of seeing all of it.  God's living among the people wherever they happen to be is a truth that releases them from fear and shame, and enables them to do good in the world, to help bring shalom. 

The reason why we read this passage during Advent is that it gives us a vision of what it will look like when God gets what God wants in the world. It gives a glimpse of what to look for when God lives among us. I 

I love how the prophet talks about how God will rescue the "lame" and the "outcasts" which is so much a part of what we see in the ministry of Jesus, who embodied God for all of us.  

Jesus' miracles of healing gave a glimpse to those who witnessed them what the kingdom of God will look like---a joy-filled world where there is no pain, suffering, war, strife, anxiety, dread, and disease.  

So what do we do with all of this?  How can we internalize the kind of joy that comes with God's presence?

Embrace the Incarnation - Jesus is referred to in the Scripture and in Christian theology as Emmanuel, God with us.  We say and sing that name during the season of Advent, but do we really know what we are saying when we say it?

Emmanuel is more than just an expression---it's the incarnation, which is perhaps one of the most challenging and incredibly life-giving aspects of the Christian faith.  God became one of us in order to rescue all of us.  

Because of this, we can know without fail that God knows what it's like to be us, intimately.  God understands us from the ground up, not from some high, holy place.  The way we pray matters... 

Surrender our Outcomes - There's a verse in the passage we just read where the prophet says, 

“Do not fear, Zion;

    do not let your hands hang limp.

17 The Lord your God is with you... 

Kind of an odd phrase, right?  It's a colloquial saying that can also be interpreted as, "don't let your hands drop," or more to our way of thinking, "Don't give up."  You see to drop the hands in Hebrew literature just meant that you were giving up, you were powerless to stop whatever was about to happen to you. 

It's tempting to give up when it feels like the world is lined up against you, isn't it?

But this verse lets us know that because of the presence of God, we have power in our powerlessness.  

Celebrate in Joy - Here's the thing---maybe it's time to start singing God's new songs.  The old songs that we've sung for a very long time need a refresher.  It can be disruptive for sure.  But there's also incredible joy in it, too.  

What happens when we figure this out?  We infect others with joy.  We spread positivity into the world.  We realize that no matter what is happening around us, we don't have to fear, we don't have to live in dread.  We can step into the joy of the presence of Christ in the world and within us.  

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